Global Treaty on Intellectual Property Falls Short in Protecting Māori Traditional Knowledge

June 10, 2024
Intellectual Property Treaty

The issue of “biopiracy” – the misappropriation and patenting of Indigenous knowledge for profit – has been escalating for some time. In response, a global treaty aimed at protecting traditional knowledge and genetic resources should be a significant and welcome development.


Background on Biopiracy

Biopiracy involves the exploitation of Indigenous knowledge and genetic resources by corporations or individuals without proper authorization or compensation to the native communities. This often results in patents being granted on traditional knowledge or biological resources, depriving Indigenous peoples of their rights and benefits.


The New Treaty

In late May, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) adopted the Treaty on Intellectual Property, Genetic Resources, and Traditional Knowledge. This treaty is notable for being the first international agreement on intellectual property that includes provisions specifically addressing Indigenous peoples’ knowledge.


Provisions of the Treaty


The treaty aims to provide a framework for protecting genetic resources and traditional knowledge by:


  1. Acknowledging Indigenous Contributions: Recognizing the contributions of Indigenous peoples to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  2. Preventing Misappropriation: Setting out measures to prevent the unauthorized use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge.
  3. Benefit-Sharing: Establishing mechanisms for fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from the use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge.


Shortcomings of the Treaty


Despite its pioneering nature, the treaty has been criticized for several key shortcomings:

  1. Inadequate Recognition of Collective Ownership: The treaty does not fully address the communal nature of Māori traditional knowledge, instead leaning towards individual ownership models.
  2. Insufficient Consultation with Indigenous Communities: The drafting process did not sufficiently include input from Indigenous communities, leaving many feeling their concerns were not adequately represented.
  3. Weak Enforcement Mechanisms: Critics argue that the treaty lacks robust enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance and protect against biopiracy effectively.


Responses from the Māori Community

Māori leaders and advocates have expressed disappointment with the treaty. They argue that while it is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough in safeguarding their traditional knowledge. They emphasize that the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, underscores the need to protect Māori culture and heritage – a commitment they feel is not adequately reflected in the new treaty.


Calls for Action

Māori leaders are advocating for amendments to the treaty to include stronger protections for Indigenous knowledge. They seek provisions that:


  • Recognize the collective ownership of traditional knowledge.
  • Ensure that any use of traditional knowledge requires the consent of Indigenous communities.
  • Guarantee that benefits derived from the use of traditional knowledge directly benefit the communities.



The adoption of the Treaty on Intellectual Property, Genetic Resources, and Traditional Knowledge by WIPO marks a historic step in recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights. However, the treaty is seen as falling short in fully protecting Māori traditional knowledge. There is a pressing need for further revisions to ensure that the cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples is adequately safeguarded and respected on a global scale.

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